I was at the first of the new Sunday JazzWorks jam sessions and came away impressed. For one thing, the space, at the Bluesfest Festival House, is idea. It is small but has a large stage area. The seating area is comfortable, there’s lots of room for horn cases and for people to move around. The sound is good. It’s idea for what we are doing.
And what we are doing is giving people a chance to jam, but also giving a bit of a course in what jamming is involved. On Sunday, the “course” was given by bassist and JazzWorks Artistic Director John Geggie. He got people up on the stage to play and talked to them and the audience about what was going on.
There were about 40 people there, off and on, and they were at all levels of ability. A shifting house rhythm section worked with horn players and singers, some of them with very little experience in this sort of thing. The names of some of the tunes to be played had been communicated in advance, which was helpful, but there were some tunes called on the spot, which is sort of wht jazz is about.
If you’ve spent a lot of time at jam sessions and playing in groups, you might have forgotten how many details have to be decided in order for that experience to be satisfying. Geggie reminded us.
Communication is the vital element. An awful lot of details have to be communicated, either verbally or with gestures and eye contact. Among them:
The key: You never know. Different people might be playing out of different books.
The count-in: somebody has to do it and make sure that everybody is on the same page rhythmically.
Feel: Is it swing, Latin, straight-eighths, or what?
Beginnings and endings: How is the tune going to start; how is it going to end?
Solo order: Who wants to solo, and in what order? How to signal that your solo is finished, or not finished.
Comping: If both a guitar and a piano in the group, will one lay out while another accompanies a soloist.
Trades: Will there be trading of fours or eights with the drummer? who will start?
Out-head: When to take the tune out and how to signal that.
Geggie stressed the need to have proper sight lines on the bandstand so that everyone can see everyone else. He talked about tuning up, about making sure the sound is balanced and the singer is not drowned out. He talked about riffing behind a soloist.
Geggie also talked a bit about improvisation and how to use the form and melody of a tune in soling.
The environment was friendly and non-threatening and lots of folks got up to try this stuff out. You could see many of them take Geggie’s points and make them work. Ensemble playing was nice.
You could also see where communication was lacking: a solo would come to an end and the musicians on the stand would look around, wondering what was to come next. And you could see instances where someone on the stand just took charge, plunging into a solo or an out-chorus, with the others quickly following along.
There are a lots of protocols even in improvised music. This was a good way of learning some of them.
From the JazzWorks point of view, one of the encouraging things was seeing nice faces, both very young and older. It would great if they came back. The next opportunity will be on Sunday, Feb. 8 at 2 p.m. and the mentor will be Ottawa saxophonist and teacher Mike Tremblay. Exactly a month later, pianist and teacher Steve Boudreau will be in charge.
Bluesfest Festival House is located at 451 Churchill Avenue in Westboro. Entrance is at the side, off Ravenhill.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.